Authors: JF Freedman
|A Killing in the Valley|
For Susannah Laurel Freedman
HEY DROVE UP SANTA
Barbara County Highway 154, the road winding serpentine-like over the pass and down into the Santa Ynez Valley, past Lake Cachuma and the ranchlands with their rolling oak meadows, until they came to an even more narrow potholed two-lane blacktop and took it east toward Figueroa Mountain. After a few miles they arrived at a private road that had
No Trespassing/Violators Will Be Prosecuted
signs hanging from poles that flanked both sides of a heavy iron gate. The signs were punctured with rusted-out bullet holes. The wind had come up strong, normal for late summer and early autumn afternoons in the valley.
The gate swung open sluggishly on its sturdy hinges. It made a creaking metallic sound, like iron fingernails on a tin chalkboard.
This road was the only way into this section of the ranch. It was hard-packed dirt overlaid with gravel, oiled and rolled twice a year. Most of the time it was serviceable, but in winter, when it rained for days straight, it would become impassable, sometimes for up to a week. Then nothing came or went on it, unless on foot or on a horse.
The road meandered for almost a mile through stands of live and blue oak, juniper, pine, scrub brush. The driver slowed to a crawl when the ruts got deep, fighting the wheel like he was riding a surly horse. Then they rounded the last turn, and the old house came into view.
There was nobody there. There almost never was. The late-afternoon sun in the western sky was a shimmering, liquid-gold mirage. The driver got out of the car and stretched his back.
“This is it,” he said. “End of the road.”
The front passenger door opened and the girl got out slowly, looking around, trying to figure out where he’d brought her. She looked past the house and the old orchards and rows of abandoned wine vines in the fields behind it to the low mountains that rose up in the north, about ten miles away.
“This is fucking incredible,” she exclaimed breathlessly, as she leaned up against the door of the car, staring.
The fiery colors—the full rainbow spectrum, but deeper and darker—were bleeding across the face of the mountains. This was even more stunning than the sunsets she sometimes saw at Summerland Beach, when it wasn’t overcast and the clouds would hang low over the ocean as the sun dripped into the water. She and her friends would sit around an illegal bonfire as evening fell, drinking beer and wine, smoking marijuana and dropping uppers, downers, E, whatever was around. Some of the kids even snorted heroin, although she hadn’t gotten to that yet. Those sunsets could be outrageous, but nothing like this. This was like God painting.
She was stoned, and that heightened her perception; in the vague recesses at the back of her mind she was aware of that. But she would have been blown away even if she was completely straight.
“Yeah, it is,” the boy agreed, barely glancing at the shimmering hills. His attention was on her. She wasn’t perfect—a little chubby, baby-fat, but on her it was sexy. Good legs, tight calves. Maybe she was a dancer, he knew girls with calves like these who were dancers. She was showing cleavage through her thin summer dress and pink Victoria’s Secret bra, he could see almost down to her brown nipples. Her honey-colored, heart-shaped face was pretty in the fashion of Penelope Cruz or Salma Hayek. A Mexican Madonna.
“Come on,” he said. “I’ll show you inside. It’s like out of an old movie.” He took her hand and started to pull her toward the house.
She resisted for a moment longer, her eyes stuck on the mountains, the wine-red burgundies merging into van Gogh sunflower yellows, into deep eggplant purples, vermilions, aqua. Then she smiled at him, and let him lead her on.
The house was definitely like a movie, she thought, as she stood in the center of the dark, high-ceilinged living room. Like one of those old black and white horror movies they show on Turner Movie Classics. All the furniture was old and heavy. It smelled like mold. The carpets were thin in spots, almost so bare you could see the wood floors under them. The windows were covered with heavy beaded curtains, like she’d seen in pictures of European castles. There were clusters of old paintings hanging from the walls—portraits of Spanish soldiers and ladies in fancy dresses, like the costumes the rich Anglos wore during Fiesta. And where there weren’t paintings, there were bookshelves, floor to ceiling. It was dark, the heavy curtains were drawn and there weren’t any lights on, so she couldn’t see anything very well, but the books all looked like they were a hundred years old or more.
Who lived here, she thought, some crazo who was going to leap out of a closet with an ax and attack them? The thought sent a shiver up her back. “Turn on some lights,” she whined. “I can’t see for shit in here.”
“Aren’t any,” he said. He was smiling, she could see that well. He was standing close, practically on top of her.
“What kind of house doesn’t have lights?” she asked in a loopy voice.
“One that was built before electricity was invented,” he answered matter-of-factly.
She was high, so she wasn’t thinking clearly anyway, but that brought her up short. “So what?” she managed to come back. “There’s places in Santa Barbara that were built before electricity that have it now.”
He shrugged. “The owners didn’t want to put it in here. They wanted to preserve it as it had been.”
“That’s stupid,” she said. “What about bathrooms?” she asked, suddenly feeling the urge to pee. “Do they have them, or do you have to go in the woods?”
He smiled again. “They have bathrooms.”
“That’s better than nothing, I guess,” she said. “Where is one?”
He led her through a series of rooms with high ceilings, the walls mostly covered with bookcases that were stuffed with books. Despite her need to relieve herself, she stopped for a moment and plucked one from a shelf. Dust drifted in the air as the book was released from its mooring.
“Does anybody ever read any of this shit?” she asked, crinkling her nose against the dust. She flipped the book open. The paper felt like an old woman’s hand under her fingers, like her great-grandmother’s hand. So fragile you could almost see the bones and blood vessels through the skin.
“Yeah, the people who lived here did,” he answered. “That’s what they did before television or computers or video games. Read books. Played cards.” He pointed to a small table against a wall. A chessboard was set out, the pieces ready for action. “You had to entertain yourself in those days, Jerry Seinfeld and Jennifer Aniston didn’t do it for you.”
She put the book back on the shelf. “It sounds, like, incredibly boring. Anyway, how could they, without any electricity?” she asked. “Read books and shit.” She thought that was a smart question to ask.
“They used gas lamps,” he answered knowingly. “Or candles. You know—like honest Abe.”
The name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t remember from where. Did he mean Abel? She knew a man named Abel—he was a friend of her uncle’s. They had done time in Soledad together.
But no, she thought, he didn’t mean Abel Sanchez. How could this guy she had just met know Abel Sanchez? She started to giggle, and put her hand to her mouth to stop herself. She was more stoned than she’d thought, she realized. It felt good. She wanted to do more of his drugs.
The urge to pee came back, stronger. She had a weak bladder; when she had to go, she had to go, immediately. “Where’s this bathroom?” she asked.
He took her hand and led her into a bedroom. It had a four-poster canopied bed, the frame high up off the floor. There was more light in here than in the rest of the house; the curtains were lace, not like the heavy material that covered the windows in the other rooms. The late afternoon sunlight filtered in through the thin material. The room smelled like camphor, the way old trunks smelled when her mother or grandmother opened them up to store important clothes, like baptism and confirmation dresses.
“That’s a really cool bed,” she said, impressed by the bulk of it.
“The mattress is goose down,” he told her, plumping it.
“How do you know so much about this place?” she asked, suddenly curious. He was practically a tour guide, the way he was showing her around. “Like, is it a friend’s or something?”
He looked past her to the beveled windows at the far end of the room, through which the light from the declining sun was refracted into a soft focus rainbow kaleidoscope, the primary colors melting on the old chenille bedspread. “I’ve been here before,” he answered obliquely. He walked her to a door at the far end of the room and pushed it open. “Here.”
The bathroom was big, almost square. All the fixtures—sink, tub, toilet—were old, like everything else in the house. The floor was tiny black and white tiles in a checkerboard pattern, like the one in Arnoldi’s, an old Italian restaurant in town where her father and uncles played bocce ball out back. This room, too, was dark, but the window opposite the toilet was bare, so there was enough light for what she needed. For a second, she panicked that there wouldn’t be any toilet paper and she’d have to wipe with her hand, or her panties, but there was an almost-f roll on the holder. She wondered how long it had been there. If it was as old as the rest of the shit in this house, it might be really scratchy.
She touched it. It was soft, like the Charmin her mother used. Thank God for small favors.
He stood in the doorway. “You okay?” he asked.
“Well, yeah, as soon as you close the door,” she answered, feeling embarrassed. “Like I’m not going to let you watch me pee.”
“Privacy’s important,” he agreed, shutting the door behind him. He was going to have the pleasure of her in a minute anyway, he didn’t need to see her squatting on the john, no matter how sexy an ass she had.
While he waited for her he went back outside to the car and got the rest of the bottle of Patron, the baggie of grass, and a pipe. When she came out of the bathroom, the sound of the old pipes groaning loudly after she flushed, he had packed the pipe and poured two shots of tequila into crystal snifters he had taken from a cabinet in the kitchen.
She put the pipe to her lips and he lit it for her. She sucked in the thick smoke, holding it in as long as she could, which wasn’t long, it was harsh, then coughing it out. “Shit,” she said, her eyes watering. She could feel her high coming back, even stronger. “That is really good grass,” she enthused.